One afternoon in November, Océane Sluijzer, a 13-year-old Belgian Jewish girl, was beaten up after soccer practice by a group of schoolmates. Her tormenters, girls of Moroccan descent, called her a “dirty Jew” and told her to “go back to her own country.”
Two weeks later, the U.S. ambassador to Belgium mentioned the beating in a speech about the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe. Howard Gutman, himself a Jew, saw Océane’s plight as symptomatic of a larger problem: Jews and Muslims in Europe are caught in a proxy war that mirrors events in the Middle East, especially between Israel and the Palestinians.
“[E]very new settlement announced in Israel, every rocket shot over a border or suicide bomber on a bus, and every retaliatory military strike exacerbates the problem and provides a setback here in Europe for those fighting hatred and bigotry,” Gutman said.
He’s right: Politics in the Middle East refract into tensions between Jews and Muslims in Europe. Violence against Jews on the Continent tends to increase when violence rises between Israelis and Palestinians, for example. The National Consultative Commission on Human Rights counted 815 acts of anti-Semitic violence in France in 2009, compared with 459 the year before, and found that the uptick was a response to Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s bloody incursion into Gaza in early 2009.
But while incidents in the Middle East are relevant, the root cause of the problem between Jews and Muslims in Europe isn’t simply the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; it is primarily the failure of European states to integrate immigrants, Muslims in particular.
Governments throughout Europe have struggled for the last half-century to expand their notion of citizenship. Muslims who came from North Africa and Turkey as workers in the 1960s and early 1970s were expected to go home eventually. But they stayed and built families in Europe. Today, their children and grandchildren are still defined as second- and third-generation immigrants rather than as Belgian, French or German.
This is partly because many Europeans cannot quite imagine how Islam and a secular European identity might co-exist. It is also because the once-marginal anti-Muslim ideas of the far right have become more mainstream; Muslims have replaced Jews as the scapegoats of Europe. If Muslims in Europe so thoroughly identify with the Palestinian cause today — posters at rallies for the right to wear the hijab often call for a free Palestine — it is partly because a weak Palestine subs in for their own maligned population.
And so while Gutman’s diagnosis of the problem rings true, his fix for it is misguided. In that speech in late November, he said that the solution to tensions between Jews and Muslims in Europe “is in the hands of Israel, the Palestinians and Arab neighbors in the Middle East.”
In fact, the real answer lies much closer to home: according to a position-paper by the Brookings Institution, if Muslim communities in Europe felt less marginalization and had more economic opportunities, they would resort less to misdirected violence. Although attacks on Jews are scary and hard to explain away, there is no broad and systematic anti-Jewish sentiment in Europe, neither among Muslims nor among the rest of the population. This is not 1936.
The key to helping Belgians understand the attack on Océane is not to sit down with Benjamin Netanyahu. It is to sit down with the girls who punched her and find out how to make them feel welcome in Belgium.